Ten days after President Saleh flew to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, the fate of the Yemeni government still hangs in the balance. Tensions remain high and there are fears that without progress on forming a new government, a civil war could break out.
In a Q&A, Christopher Boucek argues that what sets Yemen apart from the other countries facing protests is that it is home to the world’s most dangerous al-Qaeda affiliate. The sooner Yemen can move past the current political crisis, the sooner the problems of poor governance, unemployment, resource depletion, and a collapsing economy can be tackled. Without addressing these systemic challenges, Yemen will continue to be a critical threat to America’s national security.
Over the past five months, Yemen’s protest movement has become increasingly dangerous and the situation more unstable as elites compete for power. It started as a broad-based protest movement with youth civil society groups leading the way, but it was then co-opted by the official opposition in Yemen.
In the last three weeks, the situation has turned especially violent when the regime started fighting against the Ahmar family. Ten days ago, President Saleh was injured rather severely in the attack on the presidential mosque and fled to Saudi Arabia. And now, the situation will either go relatively smoothly, where the vice president will assume power and lead a transition, or it could turn very violent, where the president’s son and nephews dig in and decide that this is a time to fight and save the regime in order to eliminate the opposition once and for all.
Throughout the protests in Yemen, violence has been relatively low. There were a few episodes of pretty severe violence, but the overall number of casualties is relatively small. Early on, people were saying that the violence could get out of hand because there are large numbers of weapons in the country. That never happened. But right now, there’s a potential for things to get really violent as the regime goes through the last spasms of trying to maintain order and control over the situation.
What we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks is growing protests in the major cities of Sana’a, Taiz, and Aden. Taiz is really the center of the uprising. Also, there is a resurgent al-Qaeda organization that is seeking to exploit the ever-growing under-governed spaces in Yemen. And as the state’s authority recedes through desertions and defections in the country and also through officially organized or tolerated chaos, we see other Islamists emerging, especially in South Yemen, and they have taken control of some cities. This is not al-Qaeda, though, that is doing this.
It is very unlikely that President Saleh will return to Yemen and govern. The injuries that he sustained in the attack on June 3 were very severe—severe enough to require his evacuation from Yemen to Saudi Arabia. Right away, he underwent at least two surgeries and he’s probably much more badly injured than anyone knows.
The Yemeni government continues to maintain that President Saleh will return as president within days or weeks, but that’s increasingly unlikely. And politically, his departure is exactly what was needed to move out of the most recent political crisis. He had to leave in order for the transition to begin and that still has yet to happen.
While the current political crisis is paralyzing and deteriorating every day, the economic situation in the country is catastrophic. Yemen’s economy is in meltdown: food prices are skyrocketing, water prices are skyrocketing, and cooking gas prices are skyrocketing. The average Yemeni—who survives on two dollars a day and one dollar a day in the most vulnerable communities in the region—is getting squeezed more and more with less room to spare.
The Yemeni riyal is being devalued, it’s getting increasingly difficult to get dollars, and Yemen’s foreign currency holdings are falling. It is very likely that whatever government comes in next will open up the central bank and find that there is nothing left. No money to pay for not only its current obligations—salaries, subsidies, and pensions—but also the economic concessions that were announced last February. There is no money to pay for any of this. This is the true crisis that we need to be focused on.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most active and dangerous of all of the regional franchises, is not going to take over in Yemen—it’s just not what’s going to happen. But, the operating space for al-Qaeda is getting bigger and bigger. As the state’s authority recedes, the space for al-Qaeda to plot, plan, and mount operations is getting larger.
Since the uprising began, we have seen the regime move its counterterrorism assets away from going after al-Qaeda toward regime protection and controlling the protests. We’ve also seen the regime create instability: they’ve withdrawn from cities and they’ve intentionally created a chaotic situation. This was done in large part to demonstrate to the international community, Saudi Arabia, and the United States that President Saleh and the current regime are the best thing to hold on to power and that they are the only way you can bring stability to the country—and al-Qaeda exploits this.
As the situation deteriorates in Yemen, the Yemeni government’s attention is focused on other issues, and al-Qaeda seeks to maximize that space, there is also more operational space for unilateral military operations, whether by the United States or others. And we’ve seen that. Following the death of Osama bin Laden, there was a drone strike against Anwar al-Awlaki and there have been several other reported drone strikes since then targeting militants and extremists inside Yemen.
Within Yemen, there are several individuals who the United States wants to bring back to the United States, kill, or capture, including suspects linked to the Lackawanna Six case, the attack on the USS Cole, several other cases, and the Yemeni-American national, the preacher, Anwar al-Awlaki.
Awlaki’s role in AQAP often gets overstated. He is not the head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But he is a threat to the United States and Western interests. He is among those individuals within AQAP who are focused on international targets—not on domestic Yemen issues or Saudi Arabia, but intent on mounting operations not only against the United States, but against the West. And the big issue with Awlaki is his ability to reach into communities in the West that aren’t otherwise subject to the attention of authorities and his ability to recruit and radicalize people who wouldn’t otherwise get that message.
Saudi Arabia is Yemen’s biggest foreign aid donor. Saudi Arabia bails out the budget every year and it is the only country that provides direct budgetary assistance. And, by comparison, the United States gives maybe $300 million in combined military and security and development and humanitarian aid, Saudi Arabia gives somewhere between $1.5 to 2 billion. So the scope of the relationship is much, much larger.
Saudi Arabia will be affected sooner than any other country by instability in Yemen. And Saudi Arabia’s primary concern with Yemen is stability and security, especially the Saudi nationals affiliated with al-Qaeda and AQAP who are hiding out in the country. Riyadh wants to see a managed transition with as little instability as possible and wants to see a government emerge in Yemen that will help ensure Saudi Arabia’s security. And the United States and Saudi Arabia want to see nearly the same thing in the country. Both want to see a Yemen that is not a danger to itself or its neighbors and a Yemen that is stable and secure.
As the security situation deteriorates in Yemen and as the government’s ability to control the situation recedes, it affects American security interests and foreign policy interests—not just in the region, but it’s also a domestic security issue for the United States. AQAP is linked to a number of incidents in the United States, domestic security attacks, attacks in Western Europe, and plots in Western Europe.
So as the situation gets worse in Yemen, it affects things at home in the West. It’s not just a far off foreign policy issue. And the notion of a failed state right next door to the world’s largest oil producer, Saudi Arabia, would be catastrophic for the global economy.
In order to move ahead in Yemen and move beyond this political crisis, it’s important that the United States, Saudi Arabia, and European allies impress upon the Yemeni government that President Saleh cannot return. He needs to officially transfer power to the vice president and we all need to empower the vice president to lead the transition. This will include impressing upon the Yemeni military and security services, led by the president’s son and nephews, that they must also step down so we can move into this transition process.
We also need to send the message to Yemen that the international community is there to support Yemen and help the country through this process, financially and politically. And it’s important to show that once our immediate terrorism concern is satisfied, we won’t turn our backs on Yemen. Our interests on security are served as conditions for all Yemenis are improved. We’re interested in improving conditions for all Yemenis—full stop—not just working on terrorism and security.
We need to move as quickly as possible through this current crisis so we can deal with the other issues like governance, unemployment, resource depletion, and Yemen’s collapsing economy.
Yemen is facing this awful confluence of crises: economic collapse, human security, traditional security, civil war, a secessionist movement, and a resurgent al-Qaeda organization. All of these things are going on at the same time in the state with the least capacity to manage multiple problems.
With the Arab Spring and what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, there was an emergence of a new protest movement that we hadn’t seen in Yemen until then. This really drove things to where we see them now. The president agreed he would not run for office and his son would not run for president. No one else in Yemen was able to achieve this level of change. That was also the biggest threat the Yemeni government has ever faced, as we can see by events now.
Unlike any other case, though, with the Arab Spring, Yemen is home—like it or not—to the most dangerous of all of the al-Qaeda regional franchises. So unlike Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, or Syria, in Yemen the stakes are much, much higher because of the presence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. AQAP has the intention to strike Western and American targets and the capacity and increasingly the operational space to do so.
This current political crisis is the biggest obstacle to dealing with the systemic issues that need to be dealt with: the economy, governance deficiencies, resource depletion, and unemployment. These are the things that need to get focused on. The sooner we deal with this political crisis and move beyond it, the sooner Yemen can focus on the systemic sources of instability in the country. Ultimately, there are no solutions to any of these problems; we can manage them, we can make some improvements, but we won’t fix them. But the sooner we’re able to focus on those other issues, the better.
And focusing exclusively on terrorism is to our own detriment. That will make all of the other issues so much worse. So the United States needs to shift its focus away from being solely on terrorism and counterterrorism toward focusing on how do we improve governance, how do we improve access to water, and how do we improve the employment situation. These are the issues Washington needs to focus on.
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